With a fender-bending crash, Lightning McQueen scores a victory against his old adversary, the battered NYPD patrol car that has been setting land-speed records up and down our hallway. The toy-trashing ceases momentarily, then Isaac’s voice calls from the other room.
‘How does Father Christmas get down the chimney?’
‘He has to squeeze in really tight.’
‘But his tummy’s too big.’
I feel a white lie turning into a black one. ‘He can just about make himself small enough to fit down a chimney.’
‘You know, like when you’re trying to squeeze into a narrow space and you pull your tummy in.’
I’m not trying to fend off a child’s creeping doubt, not yet. Unlike his older sister, who now accepts talk of Father Christmas with the shrugging tolerance of someone who knows she is being spun a yarn, Isaac still subscribes willingly to the Santa Claus story. In The Baby in the Mirror, I suggested that the toddler Athena’s willingness to enter into pretence scenarios foretold her eager self-immersion in the imaginary storyworlds of middle childhood. When you are pretending, you follow the rules of the world you have created, no matter how far-fetched they might be. But you don’t lose sight of the fact that that world is invented; you keep one foot in the real world, even when the imaginary action is at its height.
Many developmental psychologists, such as Jacqueline Woolley and Paul Harris, would argue that children deal with these made-up contexts pretty much as adults do. Kids are not fundamentally confused about the distinction between fantasy and reality, any more than adults are immune to such boundary-blurrings. And yet Santa Claus, and other fantastical entities like the Tooth Fairy, may present us with a special case. Isaac knows that the old man we saw at Alnwick Gardens yesterday, who sat in his grotto dishing out presents supplied by an elf with a walkie-talkie, was not the genuine article. He knows that there is a realer version out there, planning his visit in the dead of Monday night. Given that he will see no other evidence of that visitor than a chewed carrot and an empty sherry glass (and maybe, if he’s good, a well-stuffed stocking), it is perhaps surprising that his belief in the bearded one is so strong. My own white or off-white lies probably make little difference in this regard. In one study, children’s strength of belief in such figures hardly correlated with parental encouragement of those beliefs. Isaac would probably have come to buy in to the Santa myth anyway, with or without the efforts we have made to make him seem real.
Perhaps this explains Isaac’s concerns about the practicalities of Mr Claus’ arrival. He is not trying to point out logical flaws in the Father Christmas story, so much as fit a fact that he is already pretty certain about (Santa’s existence) into his existing understanding of the world. He is more concerned with the logic of how that story can happen than with the bigger metaphysical picture. Santa is a flesh-and-blood person of certain fixed dimensions, who has to worry about squeezing through narrow spaces just as any other rooftop-travelling geriatric would have to do. In time—perhaps when he is better able to think through the practicalities of single-handedly performing several billion overnight deliveries—Isaac will probably imbue Santa with supernatural powers to go with his purely physical accomplishments. As with other metaphysical matters, children look heavenwards for explanations when physical ones fail to suffice. Jingling his bells, Santa will attain the powers of a god, just before he vanishes from Isaac’s life for ever.